Solo Arts Festival
nytheatre.com review by Kevin Connell
June 12, 2006
A person with a story walks onto the stage and tells it. It's him and his words. It's the art of storytelling with the barest of theatrical elements. Sure, there are a dozen or so stage lights to shape the narrative and photos are projected onto a white screen, but it feels more living room than theatre space, more scrapbook than multimedia. It's simple. It's not even necessarily original. But it's evidence of a life shaped by positive and negative experiences, and for that purpose alone, I welcomed the opportunity to witness the telling of Lance Werth's I Know You Are, But What Am I?
It's his coming-of-age, coming-out-of-the-closet, coming-into-his-own, 60-minute comic tale. The story begins in Great Bend, Kansas and ends in New York City—or more to the point—the story begins in the "navel of the nation" and ends in the Big Apple! The crux of Werth's exploration is: am I my nickname? I Know You Are, But What Am I? is his story told through the nicknames that have shaped the events of his life. From his perspective, these nicknames were used to segregate the chronically un-cool from the cool. Lance Francis Werth—like Anne Boleyn ("The Great Whore") and Richard Nixon ( "Tricky Dick")—became a series of nicknames, climactically narrowing down to the most impressionable one—"Werth-less." What is being explored here is familiar to so many of us—sure the facts are specific to Werth's life, but the feelings are universal and adaptable to the given circumstances of anyone who has struggled with insecurity, identity, and isolation at some point in their life.
Werth is unadorned and to the point as he reveals his sensitive, impressionable, un-athletic and Midwestern self. He tells stories about school, summer camp, and community theatre. He explains why he came to New York City and shares the disappointments and revelations that accompanied that move. And he talks about all the people who influenced him in those years growing up in the Wheat State and the hope that finally was realized one day in a restaurant here in the city of dreams, a moment that surprisingly changed the direction of his life.
Werth, who is guided by the direction of Joseph P. McDonnell, seems rushed and self-conscious in the opening minutes of his performance, but settles into the rhythm of the experience, enabling a sense of fun to permeate the drama of his monologue. What's enjoyable here is the sense of intimacy Werth has with the audience. It's like he just got off the couch, moved the coffee table aside, and started entertaining a group of friends at a party. There's no pretension here. It's a bit stand-up, is certainly campy at times, is surprisingly poignant, and as I said initially, it's simple, not even necessarily original—but it's evidence of a life shaped by positive and negative experiences.
As I sat in the theatre, I understood. I got it. Maybe it's because I seem to have also lived it, only, for me it began in the Buckeye State, and like Werth, I found solace on an island called Manhattan, our colorful Land of Oz.